lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

wood bench makeover

It has been a busy summer of projects for me and this was one of my easier ones. This handmade outdoor wood bench was given to us by a friend a few years ago and because it was unfinished, it quickly started to dry out and age from being exposed to the elements.

lola-rugula-how-to-refinish-an-outdoor-wood-benchAside from being exposed to the rain, cold and heat, one of the biggest problems we encountered with letting this unfinished bench sit outside were the wasps eating away at it. The wasps made sitting on the bench for any length of time almost impossible and finally demanded that action be taken.

This project took about 2 weekends for me to complete, doing it in my spare time and allowing for drying time. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Hose down well to remove loose dirt, sand and grit
  2. Let dry completely
  3. Sand well
    1. I used a combination of rotary sander and hand sanding to get this job done. The sides to the slats are the most tedious part of the job but don’t be tempted to skimp out…sanding is important! I started with about 120 grit and ended with around 400, especially in the seating area
  4. After sanding is complete, rinse well again and let dry completely.
  5. Brush on a healthy coat or 2 of a good wood conditioner and let sit for 24 hours.
  6. Stain using a brush or cloth, adding a few coats if necessary to reach the desired color. Let dry.
  7. Check for any final rough spots – sand if needed and wipe clean.
  8. Apply an outdoor polyurethane and let dry. Repeat at least 3 times.
  9. Smooth any final rough spots with a fine sander
  10. Done!

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Isn’t she beautiful?

My husband was thrilled to see the final results of this bench, as it was one of his friends who blessed us with it. And I’m happy to report that I can finally go outside and enjoy sitting on it with a good book and glass of wine without the wasps driving me batty. (battier?)

I hope you all have enjoyed your summer. I’m in a bit of denial that it’s almost October but at some point I believe life has to wind down and recharge. Are you ready for it? I sure am.

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

easy asparagus with ricotta and capicola frittata

Asparagus season is upon us even though my own crop is still quite a few weeks away from delivering. Take advantage of the great deals on asparagus now and whip together this easy frittata recipe for dinner, brunch or breakfast. Of course, you can also make it vegetarian by removing the capicola. No capicola on hand? Use prosciutto or even bacon…trust me, no one’s going to complain.

asparagus-frttata-ricotta-tart-recipe

easy asparagus with ricotta and capicola frittata recipe

  • 15-16 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup freshly-shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • fresh chives, minced
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • a few slices of capicola, diced
  • 1 lb fresh, thin asparagus spears

Preheat oven to 375°

In a bowl, whisk together everything but the asparagus. Pour into a 10-inch (or close) non-stick pan. Gently press the asparagus spears into the top of the mixture.

Bake in oven about 20 minutes, just until edges start to turn golden brown. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes before slicing and serving.

Don’t sweat this if you don’t have pencil-thin asparagus! Just dice up your thicker spears and add them to the mix. Maybe not as pretty but, trust me, still delicious. I’ve done it both ways and it works like a charm. If your spears are super-huge, try blanching them first.

Of course, you can make this with any veggie you like; use your imagination and don’t be afraid to play with your food.

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

easy lamb recipes

Quite often I am awed and inspired by what my followers deem my most popular recipes because, quite often, they are not the recipes (nor the accompanying photos) that I aspire to be popular. A few people take the time to comment here on my site but many more share my recipes over and over again, particularly on Pinterest. If you’ve ever searched Pinterest for lamb recipes, chances are good you’ve seen one of mine. The fact that people search for how to cook lamb does not surprise me – a lot of people aren’t really comfortable preparing it.

My first attempt at cooking lamb many (many) moons ago went horribly wrong. It was an attempt to cook some sort of thin lamb chops – probably blade or shoulder chops – which seemed simple enough until I cooked them to an angel hair’s breath of dryness and toughness. They were flavorless and disappointing, to say the least. I swore I’d never make lamb again.

Flash forward just a year or two after that to me enjoying an Easter celebration in Connecticut, where I lived at the time. A good friend there, as luck would have it, is Greek. Her mother had a huge lamb roast cooking in the oven that day and the smell was enough to make me drop to my knees and send up a prayer. Rubbed with garlic, oil and spices and slow roasted to medium rare, I realized that I had no idea the real beauty of lamb or its possibilities.

So, how do you cook lamb shoulder or blade chops? These cuts are less expensive than a loin cut, so ideally you should involve a marinade and then a quick cook at a moderate to high temperature. The marinade helps break down the toughness of cut but the final cook should be fast and simple. You can also braise these (brown and then simmer slowly in liquid) but watch them closely so as not to overcook. Larger cuts of lamb shoulder can be braised for longer.

Here’s the photo of my most popular lamb recipe on Pinterest:

lemon oregano lamb shoulder chops recipe lola rugula

Not an incredibly staged photo, is it? But it’s still quite popular and I believe that’s because of its simplicity and, yes, it’s lack of photographic staging. We all like recipes that are somewhat simple and approachable and this easy lamb recipe is both. Lamb shoulder chops also make this recipe affordable, which we can all appreciate. What’s better than lamb with garlic, lemon, and oregano? Not much, I tell you.

Mint is also a traditional herb for lamb and once you’ve tasted the pairing you’ll understand why. My second most popular lamb recipe is lamb loin chops on the grill, made with mint, oregano and lemon:

lola rugula grilled lamb loin chops with garlic, oregano and mint recipeLoin chops are a more pricey cut of lamb but they don’t require marinating and they’re like any good loin chop – lean and tender.

One day I’ll feature my leg of lamb recipe but I can tell you this: it involves lots of herbs, olive oil and garlic, just like that long ago Easter lamb. I have, however, shared what I love to do with my leftover leg of lamb and that’s to make lamb stew.

easy lamb stew recipe

For me, there’s nothing more satisfying than a big bowl of this, along with a good book and a glass of red wine. A little crusty bread doesn’t hurt either.

I hope that if you’ve had a failed attempt at cooking lamb like I have, you’ll be willing to try these and give it another go. I promise you that lamb can be easy and flavorful with just a little bit of effort.

Happy spring everyone!

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

how to grow artichokes as an annual

Hallelujah! After 2 failed attempts, I have finally – successfully! – grown artichokes. If you’ve ever tried to grow them and not had much success either, hopefully my journey this year will inspire you to try again. If you’re not familiar with me or my site, I live in Northern Illinois, which is Zone 5. Previous attempts at growing these failed, due to the fact that we tried starting them directly in the garden. I credit my husband for inspiring me to try and grow these in the first place – he was the one who bought and planted the first seeds.

Growing artichokes in Zone 5 is tricky, mostly because you need to treat them as annuals, even though they’re perennial plants in warmer climates. We may try and over-winter them, just to see if we can do it, but I’m happy as a clam no matter what happens from here.

The first trick is to grow Imperial Star artichokes. These artichokes are specifically bred to be grown as annuals and I ordered my seeds this year from Sustainable Seed Company.  The second tip is to definitely start your artichokes inside in late winter. I started mine the first week of February and here’s what one of them looked like on February 28:

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You can see that I started them in peat pots, to try and lessen the planting shock that happens when you put them in the ground. When I start any of my seeds indoors, it’s with a base of basic potting soil with about a 2 inch top of seed starter, which is a light mix that is perfect for seed starting. I don’t use any special lights or anything…just a small portable greenhouse with a plastic cover that helps keep the heat and moisture in and helps the seeds germinate. I bought my 3 level one years ago for about 35 dollars and it’s held up well. I keep it in front of a sunny window and it works like a charm. I admit that I have huge walls of windows in my dining room and living room that makes starting and growing plants a breeze. Even before having this luxury, I’ve had much luck with just a mostly-sunny window for a portion of the day.

  • Buy Imperial Star artichoke seeds from a reputable source
  • Plant your seeds in January or early February
  • Use peat pots for planting
  • Use seed starter for the best results (again, I put an inch or two of seed starter on top of potting soil)
  • Keep in a sunny spot and keep damp but not overly-wet, until seedlings emerge
  • Once seedlings emerge, keep damp but not wet, letting dirt dry out a bit in between
  • A few weeks before planting outside, place peat pots outside in a sunny spot, to help them become acclimated to the cooler temperatures, wind and sun. Make sure you continue to water your plants as they harden off.

I planted my 2 artichoke plants in our garden mid-May, making sure to add a healthy chunk of compost and rotted manure to the soil before planting. On June 12, here’s what one of my plants looked like:

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Needless to say, I was pretty excited already with their progress.

  • Select a spot in your garden that will receive lots of sun and has good drainage. You want to water your artichoke plants, not drown them.
  • When planting in the garden, dig a hole large enough to set the peat pot in, plus extra room for compost
  • Add well-rotted compost and/or manure to the hole
  • Bust open the bottom of the peat pot and set into the hole
  • Fill hole with dirt so that the dirt reaches just the bottom of the plant and pack the dirt around it well
  • Soak well with water
  • Continue to water when the soil dries out

Fourth of July weekend, here’s the progress of my artichoke plants:

lola_rugula_how-to-grow-artichokes_7.4.15

Crazy, right? I’ve always know they were part of the thistle family but they were actually more attractive than I thought they’d be. They’re big though, have no doubt. I planted mine with a good 2 feet in between plants and I’m glad I did.

  • Continue to water your plants as they grow, making sure they don’t go prolonged (aka: weeks) without water. Artichoke plants are heavy feeders.
  • If your plants seem to be struggling (or you just want to give them some added oomph), toss on some more compost and/or manure and gently work it into the ground with a trowel. Be sure not to dig too deeply, so as not to disturb the roots of the plant.

On August 1st, my efforts were finally paying off and the first small choke made an appearance:

lola-rugula-how-to-grow-artichokes-8.1.15

Only my true garden nerd friends will probably get this but I was practically jumping up and down with excitement. I’d actually achieved a real, live, honest-to-goodness artichoke.

Their growth was really rolling now and just a few weeks later, on August 19, here’s one of my plants:

lola-rugula-how-to-grow-artichokes-8.19.15

Isn’t that crazy? I was amazed at what just a few weeks could accomplish. I was in artichoke nirvana.

  • While artichokes are growing, make sure to keep them watered but let them dry out between waterings
  • I noticed that black ants really liked my artichoke plants, so I lightly dusted them with organic food-grade diatomaceous earth a couple of times, early on in their growth, and that problem was solved.
  • Do not let your artichokes start to open; this means they’re going to flower and you don’t want that. Harvest your artichokes by cutting them with an inch or two of stem. (if your stems are large enough, you can peel them and prepare them along with the rest of your chokes…they’re yummy)

Labor Day weekend, I took this shot of my strongest plant, which had a good 11 artichokes growing at one time. This is after I’d already harvested 4 or so artichokes off of this plant. So if you’ve ever wondered how many artichokes one plant can produce, now you know.

how-to-grow-artichokes-in-zone-5-lola-rugula

I actually harvested my first artichoke on August 10 – that’s right, August 10 – and have to admit that I was gloating just a bit. I felt this was well-deserved though, after a couple of years of effort. Behold, my very first homegrown artichoke:

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Victory is mine!

I will tell you though, one of my plants was much more productive than the other, which makes me suggest that you should definitely plant more than one plant for the best results. Also, these artichokes are not the size of the huge artichokes you find in the store, but they have more flavor and are more tender.

lola-rugula-how-to-grow-artichokes

It’s now mid-September and one plant is still producing heavily, the other not nearly as much. I’m going to let the not-so-productive plant go to flower, and see if I can achieve a flower and seeds for next year. I may be a little late for this, but only time will tell.

Happy gardening!

lola rugula cold cucumber salad recipe

playing the fiddleheads

Warning: weird vegetable alert. In case you didn’t know it, you can eat the unfurled fronds of an ostrich fern. Yes, you heard that right. You can not only eat them but, if you’re like me, you can enjoy them immensely.

Fiddleheads are, at least to most of us, a delicacy that is only to be had in the late spring months of May and June. Mostly found on the east coast and in Canada, fiddleheads are harvested once a year and, like ramps and morel mushrooms, savored for their taste as much as their scarcity.

We have tried growing ostrich ferns here in our zone 5 area of Northern Illinois but, thus far, have not had much luck. (read: any) We have a relative in a neighboring town who grows them by the truckloads and who we’ve hotly debated pillaging them from but, alas, have not.

All a matter of time, in my book.

But, for now, I order them fresh from a grower out east. As much as I’d love to tell you who, I fear their supply will diminish from my post and, therefore, leave me fiddlehead-less, which is not acceptable. What I will tell you is that to order and ship them isn’t cheap – figure around $50 for 2 pounds – but, at least in my book, worth it.

Behold….the fiddlehead:

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That, my friends, is a thing of beauty.

I lived in Connecticut for quite a stretch of time and these little beauties can be easily found there while they’re in season. That’s how I stumbled upon them and, to this day, relish in their deliciousness. It is why I pay a pretty penny to still be able to enjoy them.

Rule number one with fiddleheads – if you’re not buying them from a reputable establishment, be sure you’re purchasing them from a reputable seller.

Rule number two: don’t eat fiddleheads raw. They can cause stomach upset if eaten raw and then you won’t be thanking me for turning you on to them.

Rule number three: aside from NOT eating them raw, you can prepare them almost any way you prefer to prepare your other veggies…steamed, roasted, grilled, etc.

I prefer mine roasted or grilled, with a drizzle of olive oil, some roughly-chopped garlic, and some coarse salt. Simple, yes, but divine. 15 minutes or so is all it takes; like most veggies, you don’t want them crunchy but, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t turn them into mush.

What do fiddleheads taste like, you ask? Asparagus, mostly, at least to me. They’re a bit grassy…earthy…green.

They do not, however, taste like chicken. Just sayin’.